Nowadays, people are finally realizing the potential benefits of cannabis. The majority of American states have some form of medical marijuana program in place, and more and more celebrities and politicians are speaking out in support of the herb.
But aside from its medicinal benefits, weed may have another, more unexpected use; producing electricity. Researchers at Üsküdar University and İstanbul Technical University in Turkey have managed to create an electrical current using none other than cannabis consumers’ urine.
Read on to learn about this new technology and how it could give new meaning to the term ‘green energy.’
How Scientists Produced Electricity from Urine
The study mentioned above was published recently in the journal Bioresource Technology Reports. Led by Professor Tunç Çatal, the multidisciplinary team of researchers included a bioengineer, a pharmacist, and a physician among others. It was while researching the removal of toxins from wastewater that the team first made their incredible discovery.
The study started out intending to investigate how to prevent the contamination of wastewater with cocaine metabolites. When people use drugs such as cocaine or marijuana, the original substance is broken down by their bodies into smaller molecules known as metabolites. These are excreted in urine, and from there, they enter the water system.
This is an issue because standard water treatment facilities do not have the technology to remove these metabolites from wastewater. Therefore, after treatment, the metabolites remain in the water and are free to enter the local ecosystem. This contamination poses a significant problem for aquatic life. It becomes more difficult to break down toxins, and oxidative stress occurs.
While searching for a solution to the issue, the researchers discovered that one of the primary metabolites of cocaine, benzoylecgonine, produced an electrical current when removed in a certain way. By passing contaminated urine through a piece of equipment known as a microbial fuel cell (MFC), the team was able to reduce toxins within the water by 25% and produce electrical energy as a by-product.
They became curious about whether the same effects would be seen with the primary cannabis metabolite, THC-COOH. As well as producing electricity, the scientists managed to successfully remove over 60% of the cannabis metabolite in their samples.
How Do Microbial Fuel Cells Work?
MFCs use specialized organisms known as ‘exoelectrogenic microbes’ and chemicals to create electricity. These microbes have the unique ability to remove electrons (in the form of hydrogen atoms) from carbon-based compounds. These electrons are transferred to a cathode (a negatively charged electrode) where they can be used to produce energy.
MFCs are considered a sustainable method of producing energy, and we may well be seeing them much more in the future. As fears about global warming continue to grow, there is more urgency than ever to find an efficient alternative to burning fossil fuels. If popularized, MFCs could become a valuable part of the solution.
The Turkish team has already been researching MFC technology for around ten years and have used it successfully with other carbon-based compounds, including ammonia, hydrocarbons, and ethanol. However, using a substance such as urine would ensure a constant supply and make the practice even more sustainable.
Furthermore, it seems as if the process can be used to remove drug metabolites such as THC-COOH from water as it passes through treatment plants. This is fantastic news as more and more people are now turning to marijuana for either medical or recreational use.
What is THC-COOH?
THC-COOH stands for 11-nor-9-carboxy-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. It is the main metabolite of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical in cannabis that is responsible for its intoxicating effects.
When you consume THC, whether by smoking, vaping, or edibles, it travels to the liver where it is broken down by the enzymes of the cytochrome P450 pathway. It is first broken down by hydroxylation into 11-hydroxy-delta-9-THC and then by further oxidation into THC-COOH.
THC-COOH is then excreted in the urine, and it is this compound which can be detected by urinalysis drug tests. It is estimated that 15% to 20% of the original THC dose is excreted in this way. That means that a considerable amount of THC-COOH is passing into our water systems every day.
What Does This Research Mean for the Future?
The researchers tested real urine from cannabis users and non-users and compared it with synthetic urine samples. They found that cannabis consumers’ urine produced slightly less electricity compared with the other samples, with a peak voltage of 0.23V compared with 0.35V for non-users’ urine and 0.33V for synthetic urine.
It seems that there is no real advantage to using marijuana users’ urine over other urine in MFCs. However, that does not mean there is no benefit at all. As previously mentioned, the team managed to remove 60% of the THC-COOH from contaminated water, and that is a significant amount. Furthermore, once THC-COOH was removed from the samples, their original energy-producing capacity was restored.
If MFC technology were to be implemented in water treatment plants worldwide, it could have a major positive impact on the environment. Not only would the water supply become cleaner, but we could also enjoy a new source of renewable energy to benefit the planet further.
Powering the Planet with Cannabis
As it turns out, cannabis metabolites in urine are not the only potential source of energy provided by the plant. Industrial hemp, a close relative of marijuana, is also being investigated as a fuel. In their study for Bioresource Technology, researchers Parnas, Li, and Stuart extracted hemp biodiesel from the seeds of the plant.
Hemp seeds are rich in oils which can be converted into fuel through a process known as transesterification. Using virgin hemp seed oil, Parnas and the team managed to convert an impressive 97% to biodiesel.
This biodiesel could potentially be used in all the same ways that regular diesel can, but in a much more environmentally friendly way. Aside from the fact that it is much greener than fossil fuels, hemp is a highly sustainable crop. It grows in a variety of different climates and requires very little in the way of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
Furthermore, hemp is capable of growing in poor quality soil, meaning that it can be farmed in regions that are unsuitable for other crops. It is also beneficial for the soil thanks to its long roots which prevent erosion, and promotes biodiversity in the local area. Another advantage of hemp is that it flowers between July and September, providing pollen for bees long after many other plants have stopped producing it.
So, what’s the downside? Why aren’t we already using hemp as fuel?
In the past, there has been unwarranted prejudice against hemp, as many people confuse it with its cousin marijuana. However, unlike marijuana, hemp produces minimal THC and does not cause a psychoactive ‘high.’
Although attitudes toward hemp are slowly changing, there is another major obstacle to it becoming a conventional fuel: Cost. Hemp seeds are highly nutritious and in recent years, have become a rather fashionable food. Currently, farmers can make far more money selling hemp seeds as a food than a fuel crop. And until that changes, we are unlikely to see hemp biofuel becoming more popular.
Using Cannabis Consumers’ Urine to Make Electricity: Final Thoughts
There are many different uses for marijuana, and generating electricity has to be one of the most unusual. But, however strange it may seem, that is precisely what Turkish scientists have done. In their quest to clean up the world’s water supply, they have also managed to turn a natural waste product into a novel way of producing energy.
Although it may be some time before we see MFCs becoming a common feature of water treatment plants, they do have the potential to solve two of our planet’s biggest problems simultaneously. Further research is needed, but the technology could potentially provide a clean source of electricity while reducing pollution levels in our water supply.
Another possible use of cannabis as fuel is hemp biodiesel. But despite its many advantages, it seems unlikely that this product will become widely available any time soon. Thanks to outdated attitudes and prohibitive costs, this valuable source of green energy remains on a back burner, for the moment at least.